Piraji’s art teaches us the value of tradition and meaning of modernity

Piraji’s art teaches us the value of tradition and meaning of modernity

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 9 December, 2017
Untitled, 1967.
Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery is hosting a retrospective of Piraji Sagara, the distinguished painter and sculptor from Ahmedabad who passed away in 2014. The artist was highly influenced by social conditions of his time and world literature, writes Bhumika Popli.
Piraji Sagara, who died in 2014, always preferred to work with wood, a medium that can pose serious difficulties for even veteran sculptors. The artist realised that he had an innate ability to infuse life into any piece of dead log. After all, he belonged to the Sagara community, widely known for creating outstanding objects from wood.

Sagara’s oeuvre includes a number of paintings and sculptures, but it was his wood works that earned him international acclaim. Whittled Space, an exhibition going on at Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery, has on display 13 wood works and two paintings by the late artist.  

The exhibits allow visitors to understand Sagara’s way of working with wood. “Right from the late 1950s to early 1990s, the artist had produced large number of works using different styles and materials. We have showcased a couple of works from each of his style,” says Puneet Shah, director, Akara Art Gallery.

The range of the artist’s vision can be seen in these painted and carved sculptures, relief works and collages, all done in wood. Sagara was quite a known figure till about 2000, but later on due to health issues, he more or less retired from public life, and his works began fading from the public memory. 

With this exhibition, Shah wanted to re-introduce the artist back to the world. He says, “I took these works because they were so ahead of their time and the technique itself has an international quality attached to it. It made sense to show these in a contemporary gallery.”

Untitled, 1980.

Most of Sagara’s influences came from literature. He was well-read, and cherished the company of the like-minded. Sharmila Sagara, daughter-in-law of Piraji Sagara, says, “Sagara used to meet littérateurs regularly. He liked hearing about Russian and French literature. And that’s how he started absorbing these things and that is what one can see in his work. His work was not influenced by any one ideology. His concerns were derived from human life. One can see both physical and metaphysical concerns in his work. He was surrounded by many social changes during his time, like the Indo-China War, the changing social circumstances and so on.”

Yet it was not the monumental that Sagara’s art focused on. Junk was an active part of Sagara’s vocabulary. There are embedded many iron nails, burnt-out adhesives, beads and other such materials on many of his works. “As his father had a carpenter’s business, Sagara used to see a lot of antique furniture which came embedded with multiple materials,” says Sharmila. 

“Sagara used to meet littérateurs regularly. He liked hearing about Russian and French literature. And that’s how he started absorbing these things and that is what one can see in his work.”

Herself an artist, Sharmila believes that Sagara was a perfect teacher and many of her lessons in art came from him. She says, “He would never teach in a set format. He would rather point a finger towards a particular topic concerning art and let me interpret in my own way.”

After attaining art education from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, Sagara taught at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. One of Sagara’s students, Muktirajsinh Chauhan, who later went on to become a teacher at the CEPT, talks about his time as a student under Sagara. “He is an artist only for the moments when he has put the brush on a paper or canvas. So rest of the time he is learning and helping to learn. He is not your regular teacher, but if you ask the right questions, and sincerely, and lend him your ears, you can learn much not only about art, but about life, living and working, and about the world around you,” says Chauhan.

As a member of the Ahemedabad Progressive Artists’ Group, Sagara was quite close to Jeram Patel, Balkrishna Patel and others. His son, Rajesh Sagara, who is also a painter, talks about his father’s motivations, which were similar to the aforementioned artists’. He says, “These artists’ intention was to do something which had not been done before, and to take the tradition forward.”

Sagara and Patel made extensive use of the blow torch in their art. Artist Jagdish Swaminathan, one of the contemporaries of Sagara, pointed at the difference between Sagara’s and Patel’s respective styles of using the blow torch in an essay published in 1982. He had written, “While Jeram dealt with the primeval, with the moment of the birth of time, Piraji [Sagara] embedded temporal forms in layers of history.”

The artist’s son, Rajesh Sagara, who is also a painter, remembers the atmosphere of his home when his father was around. “As a child, I have seen a number of artists, poets, painters, theatre actors and other people belonging to creative fields at my home often. Our house was like an open studio where people were free to practice their respective form of art. My father used to work in the same atmosphere along with the other artists.”

The show is on view till 22 December at Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery

 

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